On The Flip Side of Sound
Softcover; 316 pages
Valery Ponomarev's autobiographical tome tells the fascinating tale of the life of a working jazz musician from a uniquely personal perspective. The Moscow-born trumpeter, who became the first native of his country to achieve jazz fame in the United States when he joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, narrates his life story with wit and candor. Beginning with his early days growing up under the Soviet regime of which he speaks with frank disdain, the author tells of his initial attraction to the trumpet upon hearing the bugle fanfares at his summer camp and his first exposure to jazz following his acquisition of a black market recording of the Messengers' Moanin' album.
The trumpeter's recounting of difficulties involved in learning the idiom, although similar in many respects to the experiences of young American artists growing up outside of major US jazz centers, is made that much more poignant due to the complexities involved in playing music so inexorably linked to an avowed enemy of his own state.
Ponomarev's chronicling of his early days in New York, playing weddings while looking for jazz work, also tells a common story, but his outsider's point of view often make his observations that much more acute. His tales of hanging out and sitting in at places like the Five Spot, Boomers and the Village Gate bring to life a bygone era that has been largely undocumented.
Of course it is the trumpeter's four-year tenure with Blakey that is the most interesting aspect of his career and thankfully it occupies the bulk of the book, describing in some detail just what it was like to be on the road with one of the busiest bands of its time and the family-like bond among the group.
The final section of the book, while not as compelling, does shine a light on the contemporary jazz scene. A chapter recounting a road trip with Benny Golson describes the growing popularity of jazz in Russia; another, in which the author has his arm broken by Paris airport security, relates the horrors of touring in a post-9/11 world.